EXCLUSIVE: Landing 10 Oscar nominations spanning nearly every major category including Best Picture, Best Director and nods for his leads Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt marks the latest development in a long odyssey that Quentin Tarantino has gone through with Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood. This was a movie that needed a new studio when The Weinstein Company imploded, and found one in Sony. A movie that took a calculated risk with a Cannes premiere well before release that required Tarantino to ask media and audiences to not reveal plot spoilers — they actually listened. Here, Tarantino discusses what the nominations mean to him on a film where nearly everything seemed to go right, and even the challenge of defying Chinese censors that wanted him to excise a fictional scene involving Bruce Lee. He also describes what it means to be part of a 2019 bumper crop of audacious auteur-driven original films also celebrated with Oscar nominations today, films so good he believes they staved off the wisdom that studios are better off making mega-budget sequels and remakes. Tarantino also here confirms suspicions he won’t direct that Star Trek film he put in motion., He does, however, intend to direct all five of the episodes he wrote of Bounty Law, the fictitious ’60s Western series he created as the star vehicle for DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton character.
DEADLINE: What has been most gratifying about this long journey on Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood?
TARANTINO: What is most gratifying is that frankly the movie survived because of the faith Tom Rothman put into it, and us. One of the things he said when we were having our very first conversation about the movie was, this is that certain kind of movie that we need to champion. An adult movie, not based on anything else. If this movie is a hit, we will show people they need to go to the movie theater to see it. There will be an interest in it, and it’s going to come out, and people are going to leave their houses to see it. That’s how the industry will judge whether or not it’s a success. He said, and when it comes to Sony, man, that is where we live. If we don’t make it a hit at the box office, we failed. I still had to make the movie though. There were so many ways along the line we could have F’d up. But we made the film and he made the theatrical run a success.
DEADLINE: That conversation happened before Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio were in, according to Rothman…
TARANTINO: Yeah. They were hovering around it and he knew they were a couple of the guys being mentioned, but they were not 100%.
DEADLINE: Rothman also said the studio would have liked the box office revenue from China, but that he agreed with your stance to not cut it, when Bruce Lee’s daughter complained about the depiction of her late father in a fictional scene.
TARANTINO: They absolutely backed me, 100%. They were all disappointed, and so was I. Partly because we had Chinese co-producers and we wanted to well by them. But there is a certain line you cannot cross. If it was just ‘Ok, Cliff slams Katie’s face into the fireplace four times…can we make it two times?’ Ok, I could do that.
DEADLINE: But to remove an entire scene and a character…
TARANTINO: To actually remove an entire scene because the country finds that scene objectionable? No.
DEADLINE: Have you ever faced a situation like this one in any of your movies?
TARANTINO: Interesting question. … No, nothing like that … well, wait, I take that back. Yeah, I faced it and conquered it, though. There was a big discussion with Miramax Harvey Weinstein over the torture scene in Reservoir Dogs. At some point when you did your first movie with Harvey Weinstein, you knew you would be presented with a situation where he was going to ask you to cut something out of your movie that is important to you. And it’s going to be presented like the greatest thing in the world. If you will just do this one thing…everything will be fine. You either had to say yes or no. He had a market research screening and came back and said, this movie could go mainstream but that torture scene is stopping it. It marginalizes your film, puts you in the Fangoria crowd. Do want to grow beyond that?
DEADLINE: What did you say? That scene with Michael Madsen cutting the ear off the cop he has kidnapped is a defining moment and the moment Tim Roth’s undercover cop reveals himself…
TARANTINO: I didn’t agree. I had just spent a year on the film festival circuit and saw how it played. And I’m just not going to let somebody say, “We don’t like this character, so we don’t want to see him.” Now this wasn’t a government saying that, it wasn’t a censorship thing. But again, I said, no thank you.
DEADLINE: You had worked with Brad Pitt on Inglourious Basterds and with Leonardo DiCaprio on Django Unchained, so you knew each guy well. What most surprised you about the chemistry between them and how their characters meshed?
TARANTINO: On the page, the guys were very different from each other. You saw them almost as doubles, down to wearing the same costumes, as Cliff wears his “Rick wig,” this pompadour thing. You saw them as part of a team and their differences just aren’t as in your face on the page. From the moment where Leo and Brad step out of the Cadillac, Rick Dalton with his cool ‘60s brown leather boots and Cliff Booth with his moccasins, and you see them enter Musso & Frank with these two completely different energies emanating from them, it becomes really apparent how different these two guys are even though it looks like they go together. That’s one of the things that was so surprising. It’s there in the script, but exactly how uneasy Rick is in his skin, and how easy Cliff was in his, was really radiated by these two guys.
DEADLINE: You mentioned before how a lot of DiCaprio effectively made Rick Dalton marinate in anxiety, was something you and he honed together on the set.
TARANTINO: He plumbed Rick Dalton’s depths. Was there more to Rick Dalton as a character, beyond his career situation? By being open to doing that, and doing it with the material at hand, it was in here though maybe we hadn’t found it yet. Finding that and exploring it was really great.
DEADLINE: You stepped yourself in so much of the lore of the movie and TV businesses at that time. I saw that Edd Byrnes passed away the other day. He was one of the touchstone pompadour-haired actors that DiCaprio used for inspiration. Did you hear from any of those actors in a way that touched you? Honestly, you are the only filmmaker who seems to remember these guys and their moment in the sun.
TARANTINO: One of the things that was exciting was when someone from that era would read the script. Like when Bruce Dern read it. He guested on two episodes of Lancer. When Burt Reynolds [who was cast as George Spahn but died while the film was in rehearsals] read it, and Kurt Russell read it. They were from that era and would know how right I did or didn’t get it. Or when Clu Gulager read it. Those were guys of that time. As far as people reaching out? Tom Laughlin’s kids reached out to me and said how much they appreciated what Brad and I said about their dad and how he was a bit of a jumping off point for Brad’s character.
DEADLINE: Tom starred in and directed the Billy Jack films…
TARANTINO: It wasn’t so much that Cliff was a Billy Jack type; it was more like, if I was doing this movie in 1969, Tom Laughlin would have been a good choice for Cliff. It was the idea of take a bit of this guy from the perspective of had we made the movie back then, that guy would have been Cliff. They said they appreciated the performance and could see a bit of their dad in Cliff. They sent me this cool Billy Jack stuff including the original script. It was really neat. Their mom and dad wrote it. One of the daughters is the blond-haired girl in the original Billy Jack, who I had a total crush on in the ‘70s when I saw the movie. We were the same age. Teresa Laughlin, I’ve known who she is since I was a kid. James Stacy’s widow showed up one of the screenings at the New Beverly, with William Smith’s widow. I was on a podcast and saying names of the group that Rick Dalton would have been part of, and I throw Fabian in there. I ended up doing ten minutes about how Fabian was a good actor, and good in those ‘60s movies. His wife heard the podcast, played it for Fabian and he was really happy.
DEADLINE: You invoked Fabian when Rick Dalton says he would not have gotten Bounty Law if Fabian hadn’t hurt his shoulder.
TARANTINO: Not Bounty Law. The Fourteen Fists of McClusky…
DEADLINE: The one with the flame thrower, how could I forget? You have barnstormed this movie on the awards circuit. It is right in the middle of a darned good year for originality, where a lot of auteur tour de forces came about, despite the obsession with sequels, remakes and tentpoles.
TARANTINO: When you say, despite the sequels and the Avengers: Endgame and all of that, I actually think a war for movies got played out this last year.
DEADLINE: What do you mean?
TARANTINO: As far as I can see, the commercial product that is owned by the conglomerates, the projects everybody knows about and has in their DNA, whether it be the Marvel Comics, the Star Wars, Godzilla and James Bond, those films never had a better year than last year. It would have been the year that their world domination would have been complete. But it kind of wasn’t. Because of what you said, a lot of original movie comment came out and demanded to be seen, and demanded to be seen at the theaters. That ended up becoming a really, really strong year. I’m really proud to be nominated with the other films that just got nominated. I think when you sum up the year, it’s cinema that doesn’t fall into that blockbuster IP proof status, made its last stand this year.
DEADLINE: Hopefully not its last stand…
TARANTINO: If it hadn’t done it this year, it might have been the last stand for movies like that. This is a really groovy year. To combat something like Avengers: Endgame, which for the month before it came out and the month after, you couldn’t talk about anything else. They tried to do that with this last Star Wars and I don’t think it quite worked, but you couldn’t get on United Airlines without running into all the tie-ins, and even the safety commercial had a Star Wars scene.
DEADLINE: You grew up with Martin Scorsese’s work a touchstone. What does it mean to be nominated in category with him both in Best Picture and Best Director in a year he got the same for The Irishman?
TARANTINO: It was one of the cool things at the National Board of Review. We’d talked before I saw The Irishman and before he’d seen my film for the DGA magazine. And I saw him at another event and we were trapped on opposite sides of the room, and talked to each other in pantomime and he pantomimed how much he liked my movie. It was like getting a review from Abel Gance, a complete pantomime review. At the National Board of Review, I could actually go to his table and squat between him and his daughter, and really tell him about much I enjoyed his film and how much it meant to me.
DEADLINE: In our very first interview on this movie, you told me how you had written five full episodes of Bounty Law, the fictional Western drama that starred Rick Dalton. Are you through exploring this world, or will you do something with those episodes?
TARANTINO: As far as the Bounty Law shows, I want to do that, but it will take me a year and a half. It got an introduction from Once Upon a Tim in Hollywood, but I don’t really consider it part of that movie even though it is. This is not about Rick Dalton playing Jake Cahill. It’s about Jake Cahill. Where all this came from was, I ended up watching a bunch of Wanted, Dead or Alive, and The Rifleman, and Tales of Wells Fargo, these half-hour shows to get in the mindset of Bounty Law, the kind of show Rick was on. I’d liked them before, but I got really into them. The concept of telling a dramatic story in half an hour. You watch and think, wow, there’s a helluva lot of storytelling going on in 22 minutes. I thought, I wonder if I can do that? I ended up writing five half-hour episodes. So I’ll do them, and I will direct all of them.
DEADLINE: Did you officially decide not to direct the Star Trek film you put in motion, the one written by The Revenant’s Mark L. Smith?
TARANTINO: I think they might make that movie, but I just don’t think I’m going to direct it. It’s a good idea. They should definitely do it and I’ll be happy to come in and give them some notes on the first rough cut.
It was just so nice to make a movie about the industry, and have the industry embrace it. At different Academy events, there has been a whole lot of old timers there who were around then and really liked the movie. Richard Rush thought we had captured the period well. Actors like Monte Markham, Sharon Farrell, Rita Moreno and all these people who dug the movie and knew the people involved and sometimes had affairs with some of the people involved with the people who were involved with the people who were onscreen.
DEADLINE: You captured their lives…
TARANTINO: And they were enthusiastic about it and it was really cool to hear.
DEADLINE: Tom Rothman said this morning he hoped after all the success and hard work by his studio, that Sony Pictures would be in a favorable position to distribute what looks to be your final film…
TARANTINO: Oh, that’s for sure. I have no idea what that’s going to be. I have a couple things I want to do before the next movie.